The Wealth of Nature: The Stage Version

By William Cronon. Adapted for the stage by Zachary Schrag, with borrowings from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It includes direct appropriations from Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, chapter 4, and the Internet Classics Archive versions of the Greek tragedies, not set off by quotation marks.

This short play was performed at the George Mason University Department of History and Art History PhD Colloquium in September 2011. It is intended to suggest the ways that historians can inject drama into their narratives by presenting them as a series of contests or debates, known in Greek as agones.

Dramatis Personae

White Pine

Prairie Farmer

Logger

Lumber Man

Chicago Wholesaler

Hinterland Dealer

Railroad Manager

Chorus Leader (W. Cronon)

Prologue

WHITE PINE: Mighty and of high renown, among mortals and in heaven alike, I am called White Pine, the Lord of the North Country. Well over 100 feet tall, I push my airy crown high above my deciduous neighbors. I often stand alone amid the more common hardwoods. I am a great harp on which the wind makes music. My wood is even-grained and remarkably uniform. My heartwood is beautifully clear and without knots. My wood is soft and light enough that one can easily work it with primitive sawmills and simple hand tools, and yet it is very strong. And if you cut me down, my logs can float downstream.

Exit White Pine

 

Enter Prairie Farmer

PRAIRIE FARMER: I am Prairie Farmer. The fertile soil of the prairie is good for my crops, but I am desperately short of trees. Without wood, I cannot make houses, barns, corn cribs, churches, schools, tools, wagons, or fences. I cannot heat my home, cook my meals, or run a steam engine. I cannot build a raft, boat, or railroad. If the prairie is to become farmland I must have pine. Who will supply it?

Enter Logger

LOGGER: I’m a lumberjack, and I’m OK. In the winter, I live in crude log structures eating salt pork and beans. I work when the ground is frozen, and I can move logs along ice-covered skidways, making piles by the frozen streams. In the spring thaw, I move the logs downstream breaking up massive logjams as needed. The rivers deposit my logs at mill towns along Lake Michigan. Who will pay me for my hard work?

Enter Lumber Man

LUMBER MAN: I am Lumber Man. I build sawmills on Lake Michigan, cut logs into boards, put them on my own vessels, and bring them to Chicago. I do much of my work there: gathering information, purchasing pinelands, ordering supplies, and lobbying for a post office in one of my towns. I buy food, ships, and labor. But alas! I lack cash. When lumber is hard to sell, as in a winter or financial panic, I lack liquid assets.

LOGGER: I want cash!

LUMBER MAN: You may have store credit. You may chop some wood on my land for yourself.

LOGGER: I want cash! I want cash!

LUMBER MAN: Alas! I risk fire, and I risk flood, as well as the ordinary cycling of the natural year. I own lands, mills, and machinery, but I lack the money to pay workers or buy supplies. And all my men demand cash. O king Apollo—see, they swarm and throng—Black blood of hatred dripping from their eyes!

Enter Chorus

CHORUS: The credit that allowed companies to do a larger business than their capital justified also laid them open to financial disaster in a panic. It was for this very reason that Chicago emerged during the 1850s as the single greatest lumber market in the world.

Exeunt

 

Enter Chicago Wholesaler, Lumber Man

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: I am Chicago Wholesaler. With my cash and my credit, I can overcome seasonal and business cycles alike. With my brother wholesalers, I buy 3 million feet everyday for nearly 7 months a year. Lumber Man, you can always find a buyer here.

LUMBER MAN: The prices are not good, but Chicago Wholesaler pays hard cash for all my cargo, letting my ship returned to the mill quickly.

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Lumber Man did not separate the good wood from the bad, so here my men sort the wood into categories that customers can recognize.

Enter Hinterland Dealer

HINTERLAND DEALER: I am Hinterland Dealer, buying lumber. Have you boards?

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Yes!

HINTERLAND DEALER: Have you shingles?

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Yes!

HINTERLAND DEALER: Have you lath?

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Any grade you like: clear, first common, and second common, and so on. In standard dimensions: 2 x 4, 4 x 4.

HINTERLAND DEALER: My customers take designs for houses and buildings from pattern books and builders manuals, and they want standardized lumber to match those designs.

Enter Prairie Farmer and Railroad Manager. They remain to one side, shouting to Dealer and Wholesaler

PRAIRIE FARMER: Dealer! Bring me back a ready-made house!

HINTERLAND DEALER: I shall buy wood for your house in Chicago.

RAILROAD MANAGER: And I, Railroad Manager, shall ship it cheaply, for I must employ capital as fully as possible.

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Heaven and fortune smile! Behold my lumber yards, stretching for whole city blocks! Smell the sap of the drying lumber.

Enter Chorus

CHORUS: More than a quarter million trees had died to build those woodpiles. And where a quarter million white pines had fallen in a single year, surely another quarter million would always stand ready to take their place. Or perhaps not.

Exeunt


Enter Chicago Wholesaler, Prairie Farmer, Hinterland Dealer

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Perhaps I do not need Hinterland Dealer. Prairie Farmer, would you like to buy directly from me?

HINTERLAND DEALER (stepping between Chicago Wholesaler and Prairie Farmer): Thou craven villain (for that is the only name my tongue can find for thee, a foul reproach on thy unmanliness)! If you sell directly to customers I shall boycott you!

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Mercy! I promise not to sell directly to customers.

Enter Lumber Man

LUMBER MAN (gesturing at Chicago Wholesaler): If we are to eliminate middlemen, perhaps we can eliminate him. Dealer, would you like to buy directly from me?

HINTERLAND DEALER: How is that possible?

Enter Railroad Manager

RAILROAD MANAGER: With new railroad lines from the mills to your town! Chicago Wholesaler put green lumber on my railcars damaging them and the roadbed. I shall now charge by weight rather than by volume.

HINTERLAND DEALER: Then I can buy in smaller amounts.

LUMBER MAN: Which is just what I shall sell. I will ship you the driest and best wood, sending only inferior wood to Chicago.

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: But how shall I maintain my stocks of every grade? Now I must compete for wood.

RAILROAD MANAGER: And you must compete nationwide, for I will bring yellow pine from the South.

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: The wood no longer comes to me; I must buy it at the mill. I must compete even in Wisconsin and Illinois. What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless one, the greatest of my woes. O fate, how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, an unknown taint sent upon me by baneful powers!

Enter Chorus

CHORUS: The glory years were over. The same railroad that had given the city its dominance now took it away. The geography of capital had shifted yet again, replacing one version of second nature with another.

Exeunt

 

Enter White Pine

WHITE PINE (exhausted): And what of me, White Pine? First the loggers killed me by the stream. Then they built railroads to kill me away from the water. They left behind a literal wasteland. Great piles of slash—small timber, branches, and other debris remain on the ground where they fell. They turn brown in the summer heat, and wait for the dry season, when a spark might set them alight. Once I treasured fire, for it opened my cones to release my seeds. But now, few parents remain to reseed a burned-out area. Those who survive fall victim to the white pine blister rust. Where once I ruled, Aspen, Birch, and Balsam Fir have replaced me. Ah me, the mockery! To what shame am I brought low.

Enter Chicago Wholesaler

CHICAGO WHOLESALER: Woe is me! Alas, alas, wretched that I am! I too am humbled now. But the same railroads that destroyed my wholesale business bring new wood for me to sell to Chicago builders. They will build mansions and towers of hardwood and stone.

Enter Chorus

CHORUS: From the wealth of nature, Americans had wrung a human plenty, and from that plenty they had built the city of Chicago. Perhaps the greatest irony was that by surviving the forests that had nurtured its growth, Chicago could all too easily come to seem a wholly human creation.

Exeunt

END

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